Category Archives: Product recommendations

Spicy Spirits: Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper

Last week I attended a launch party for Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, a new extension to the SoCo brand, held at Neely’s BBQ Parlor. 

So how was it? Straight up, the flavor is on the sweet side (as is regular SoCo), and reminded me of Red-Hot candies, but it has a familar, vinegary Tabasco twang on the finish. I suspect this one will find a broad spectrum of drinkers. It’s not very spicy, it has just a hint of naughty sizzle, which nearly disappears when mixed into drinks.

It went down particularly easy mixed in the “Burnt Lemon” cocktail:  SoCo Pepper, turbinado sugar, and homemade lemonade, garnished with a candied lemon peel.

For me, the big surprise of the evening wasn’t the spirit — but rather, the discovery that Neely’s has a cigar cellar, which was dark and refreshingly chill after the crush of BBQ-hungry hordes upstairs. If I didn’t have dinner plans afterwards, I might have lingered to try the cigar-and-SoCo Pepper pairing offered.

I have to call out the soundtrack for the evening, too:  “Hot and Cold” by Katy Perry; “Burning Down the House” by The Talking Heads. “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer. Whoever put together the playlist sure had a lot of fun, and I stuck around for an extra drink just to see what song would come up next.

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Spicy spirits: DragonBleu flavored vodkas

I’m always on the lookout for new spicy spirits, and these appeared on my doorstep one day, French vodkas made by a Cognac distiller, each one infused with agave nectar and a little something extra.  (There’s an unflavored version too, but we’re all about the bold flavors here.)  At first, I thought they might be made from grapes, but nope, it’s a grain-based vodka.  Here’s the assessment:

DragonBleu White Ginger Vodka:  It’s slightly cloudy in the glass, and has a true but relatively mild ginger scent. The spirit has a good ginger zing on top of the agave sweetness, and finishes surprisingly smooth. It had a slight bitter aftertaste, but overall I like it and I think others would too. I want to mix it with pineapple juice & make tiki-style drinks.

Final verdict:  Very nice. Get some. Make tiki drinks.

DragonBleu Penja Pepper Vodka:  Okay, so my first question was, what the heck is a Penja pepper? The label doesn’t really tell you, so I looked it up:  peppercorns from the Penja Valley of Cameroon – black, white, or green. 

The vodka had an earthy flavor, with a mild black pepper/pink pepper burn in the back of the throat, which lingers there. (I may have just interpreted white peppercorn as pink because the sweetness from the agave).  It takes a couple of sips for the peppery heat to build, but it’s not a harsh heat, it’s about medium heat.

Final verdict:  Medium heat. Could be interesting in fruity drinks, like a Cosmo variation.  I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it.

DragonBleu Rose Blossom Vodka:  Floral flavors are tough to do. Too much, and you imagine you’re drinking perfume or soap – bleech!  So this one is a pleasant surprise. Just a faint rosewater fragrance, and an equally delicate floral taste manned up by peppery notes on the finish. There’s that now-familiar agave sweetness. Mixed with say, grapefruit and cranberry juice to cut some of the perfuminess, this would go down easy. I wanted to add a splash of rye whiskey too, to rough up the edges a bit.

Final verdict:  Chileheads will hate this, unless they muddle a few slices of Serrano in there first. But a good choice for those who appreciate floral flavors.

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Spicy Spirits: Hangar 1 Chipotle Vodka

It’s baa-aack!

Hangar One chipotle vodka was one of the first spicy spirits to cross my radar screen a couple of years ago.

And then it disappeared off the shelves.

And now…it’s back, though to me it tastes a little different, which I suppose is to be expected with an artisan bottling. This batch has a golden color, and smells fresh, juicy, and lightly tomato-y, not at all smoky. But one sip, and it’s definitely all kinds of spicy, smoky, very lively and lingering. Like fresh chile peppers, the more you sip, the more the heat builds. It also has a quality that I find hard to explain, but can best describe it this way:  There’s something alive and authentic in the flavor….it tastes like something I just infused myself.

The heat level is a bit much for me straight up (which means chileheads will looooove it) but this seems like instant gold for blazing Bloody Marys, and I could see this doing nicely in a sweeter drink. Tempered with say, pineapple juice and ice, this would impart a lovely glow. 

The bottle arrived with a ziploc baggie of leathery brown chipotle peppers:  “Jalapeno peppers smoked by T-Rex Barbecue in Berkeley, California,” the label says. ” This is the most important pepper used in our Chipotle vodka.” The other peppers are (fresh) green jalapenos, red bells, and “Scoville-scale-scorching habaneros.” – all locally sourced through C&L Produce of Oakland, CA. And it’s produced & bottled in Alameda, CA. They make a point of labeling it as California’s Hangar One, as you can see on the colorful box in which the vodka arrived.

Final verdict:  Chileheads need to run out and buy a bottle. Now. However, if you don’t care for spicy, this one is not for you.

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Spicy spirits: King’s Ginger Liqueur

I love ginger. I really, really do.

I have long been a vocal fan of Domaine de Canton, that zingy ginger-infused brandy liqueur. And when I had a chance to try a swig of Skyy Infusions Ginger vodka, that made me happy too:  all bright ginger sizzle and aroma, but no sweetness. And of course, the more fiery the ginger beer for my Dark & Stormy’s, the better (Fentimans is still my brand of choice).

And now, add to the ginger landscape The King’s Ginger liqueur. It’s distilled in Holland, and clocks in at 82 proof (rather high for a liqueur). The label says it’s “produced exclusively for Berry Bros & Rudd” in London, supposedly created in 1903 for King Edward VII. The marketing literature plays heavily on the London provenance. I do like that it’s sold in Harvey Nick’s -  very Ab Fab, sweetie darling.

So how does it taste?  The honey-colored liqueur has a good dose of ginger in the aroma, but when you take a sip you get hit by a syrupy sweetness first, and then the spiciness of the ginger only kicks in after a beat or two. The end result is that it seems heavier than it really is.  I suspect it will be best lightened up with carbonation (tonic water? ginger ale) and citrus. Speaking of citrus, there’s an intriguing citrusy note on the finish, though it fades out quickly.

The final verdict:  I prefer ginger to really sing out, so Domaine de Canton still wins for me. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority, and many people will enjoy this sweeter version, especially when mixed into drinks. And perhaps consumed while watching Patsy & Edina in action. Kiss kiss, sweetie darling.

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Spicy Spirits: Belvedere Bloody Mary

I’m a sucker for hotel bars with history. So of course I couldn’t resist an invitation to a spirits preview event at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, where the Bloody Mary was born — and where 5,000 Bloodies are served each week.

The spirit in question was Belvedere Bloody Mary, which will launch nationwide in April. Truth is, I know of a gazillion Bloody Mary mixes, where the instructions are “just add vodka” (or tequila, or other alcohol of choice). But this is the first spirit I know of where the flavoring is within the vodka, and the instructions are “just add tomato juice.”

Clare Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology for Belvedere (she was a brand ambassador before the term became ubiquitious) was on hand to explain how the product was made:  each flavored ingredient is distilled separately, and then the flavored vodkas are blended together. So the Bloody Mary includes seven different distillations:  fresh tomato, black pepper, horseradish, bell pepper, chile pepper, lemon, and vinegar.

According to Smith, the bottled blend is “recipe #37,” and over 200 flavor combinations were tried. The winning recipe includes equal parts black pepper and horseradish, and roughly 0.1% vinegar distillate, which “mimicks freshness without the hit of heat Tabasco would bring.”

Some of the flavors that were tried but discarded included habanero peppers, birds-eye chiles, green peppers, garlic, sundried tomato, and onion.

“The onion was nice on the nose, but it tasted awful,” Smith confided. “It was like the taste of onions the day after you’ve eaten them.”  Gross.  Thanks for sparing us that particular flavor. But knowing that all those flavors are in the Belvedere bank, I’m curious as to what blend might be released next.

So how was it? The finished vodka is clear — not red — which was a shrewd decision, since it can be blended into other drinks.  Tasting the vodka straight, it has a distinct black pepper aroma, with warm hint of  fresh tomato essence. On the tongue, it’s sweet, with a sharp, tangy finish (I presume that’s the vinegar/horseradish note), and a soft feel.

I also tried the Belvedere Bloody Mary cocktail (that’s it in the photo above) made with the vodka, tomato juice, Merlot, lemon juice, Tabasco, and a touch of salt. It’s a slam dunk in the drink — as it ought to be – and although I prefer my Bloodies with a bit more heat, the vodka surely should make for idiot-proof Bloody Marys at hangover brunches galore. (“It’s awful that the drink is relegated to one you drink when you feel terrible,” Smith said. I concur.)

I also tried the Belvedere Spiced Island Daiquri (Bloody Mary vodka, fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup, a touch of smoked paprika). Unfortunately, this drink didn’t work as well – the black pepper and an odd vegetal twang come through where you don’t really want it.

Now, here’s the drink I would have preferred to try:  Smith recommended a dirty martini with a lemon twist. I can easily imagine that — super well-chilled, served with a briny/savory snack like smoked salmon on toast. Now that sounds like an appealing drink to me.

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Spicy spirits: Revel Stoke Spiced Whiskey

Surely, any day that begins with me drinking spiced whiskey before breakfast is going to be a good day.

This morning, I had the pleasure of a visit from Dean Phillips of Phillips Distilling. The Minneapolis-based company is perhaps best known for their vodkas (UV, Prairie Organic), but I was particularly looking forward to learning more about their Revel Stoke Spiced Whiskey, and of course, tasting a sample.

A bit about the product:  it’s made with Canadian Whiskey although it’s produced and bottled in Minnesota; it’s  rye-based; it’s 90 proof.  You rarely get precise info about what the spices are in “spiced” spirits — in this case, it’s cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, ginger, and vanilla.

Although the product has been around for a decade, it now has been re-packaged and was re-introduced in the United States two months ago; it will be available in Canada in January 2011.  And attention all you bar-bet fanatics:  it’s named after Revelstoke, a ski town in British Columbia. And although the town is “Revelstoke” (1 word) , the spirit’s name is officially two words:  Revel Stoke.

So, how does it taste? In short, very good. It has a sweet vanilla fragrance, a soft feel on the tongue (despite the fact that it’s 90 proof), and has a nice warming pop of cinnamon and ginger and just the faintest spicy bite from the rye.  Spice-lovers will enjoy it straight up; a shot would probably also mix well with a tall glass of ginger ale and ice.

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Spicy Spirits: Original Cinn cinnamon schnapps

Wow – so this is what it’s like to drink a cinnamon bun?

Not long after my post on Fireball Whiskey ran, I received an email from the PR rep working with Hiram Walker on the re-launch of their “Original Cinn” cinnamon schnapps. Would I like to receive a sample? Boy, would I! 

Here’s a photo of what the Liquor Fairy brought, in one gi-normous box:  vodkas and liqueurs labeled as “The seven deadly sins” (Cinns) – get it?  For whatever reason, the cinnamon schnapps was tagged as “Pride.”

So how was the spirit? It has a HUGE vanilla aroma, and a sticky-sweet vanilla icing flavor with just a bit of cinnamon sizzle on the finish. It’s a little over-sweet and strong (90 proof) straight up, but I know folks who would enjoy this as a shot. I think it could be a nice addition to a creamy cocktail, maybe with vodka and cream as a modified White Russian (quick, someone name a Russian pastry!). A recipe on the back of the bottle suggests 2 parts cinnamon schnapps to 5 parts apple cider – that too could be a palatable drink. A splash in hot apple cider would be divine.  I dare you to garnish it with a mini cinnamon bun.

It’s not a sophisticated flavor, but it’s tasty and goes down a little too easy, if you know what I mean. But that’s schnapps for you.  I would prefer this with more heat to it – the cinnamon note is very subtle.

The verdict:  I would have loved this in college, but it’s a little sweet for me now.  That said, I am all kinds of excited to see more cinnamon-flavored spirits coming on the market.

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Spicy Spirits: Fireball Whiskey

I’m psyched to see more cinnamon-flavored spirits coming out in the market.

I was a fan of De Kuyper’s “Hot Damn!” cinnamon schnapps, which was on the market/ then off the market /and now back in 80 and 100 proof format. The version I tried (before the relaunch) reminded me of those tiny red-hot candies — very sweet, but lots of sizzle. 

In addition, Hiram Walker is launching “Original Cinn,” also a cinnamon schnapps, clocking in at 90 proof. I’ve not yet tried the product, but their marketing boilerplate promises an “aroma like fresh-baked cinnamon rolls with notes of vanilla and a warm, spicy finish on the palate.” 

And last week, at Tales of the Cocktail, I tried Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, and frankly I was ready to pocket the bottle and bring it home. It’s made with Canadian whiskey, and has the usual caramel/vanilla notes and amber hue found in the spirit. But the taste, heat level, and finish truly reminded me of those round red fireball candies — in other words, hot stuff!  Unlike liqueurs, it wasn’t overly sweet, either. I’m dreaming of mixing it with fall apple cider.

However, I’m not so much a fan of the tagline printed on the back:  “tastes like heaven, burns like hell.”  The heat was more of a gentle glow than a Tabasco-like fiery furnace. I suspect that “burns like hell” will scare off less adventurous imbibers.

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Hot stuff: Monin spicy syrups

Well, looka what the postman brought:  Monin’s line of spiced syrups.  I had a great time experimenting with the Habanero Lime flavor over the weekend, which is why you don’t see it in the photo below, dashing it into 7-up, tequila, and whatever else I had on hand. I’m excited about this product line, with good reason.

Spicy Chocolate, Spicy Red Cinnamon, Spicy Mango, Chipotle Pineapple syrups.

Let me tell you a syrup story. Maybe a year ago, after the book manuscript was safely turned in to my editor but long before the publication date, I hit upon the brilliant idea of marketing a line of Spice & Ice-branded syrups and glass rimmers. Great idea, right? I got busy with all the due diligence:  I signed up for a seminar with the NASFT (the same folks who bring us the Fancy Food show); I found a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn willing to let me use their space; I ordered dozens of tiny food-grade squeeze bottles to share with a few selected bartenders; I cranked out a marketing plan.

But wait — one key piece of the puzzle still was missing.

The product.

Here’s the problem:  I have lots of great simple syrup recipes, but they’re good for a couple of weeks, and that’s it. In order to sell a product, it has to keep long enough to survive distribution, maybe sitting in trucks or warehouses or on shelves for months and months. Even refrigerated products require some longetivity.

I spent several weekends brewing up syrups I really liked – Habanero Orange! Jalapeno Mint! Clove & Cinnamon! – and then I’d decant them into squeeze bottles, cap ‘em up, and sit them on a shelf to see how long a shelf life I might claim. Each time, it was about 2 weeks, and then a thin scum of black mold would grow. So very appetizing! So I’d toss out the bottle and start over again. I pestered a lot of very nice people with questions, who generously shared advice:  Use a greater sugar-to-water ratio, since sugar is a preservative. Purchase preservatives to extend shelf life (I had my heart set on creating an organic product, so that ruled out most preservatives). Find a better way to seal air out of the bottles.

Equally troubling: sulfur. I wanted to work with fresh peppers, which work great in freshly-made syrups but don’t age well. They begin to exude a horrible, knock-you-over-backwards, sulphuric stink after about 3 weeks.

So we stamp Kara’s Great Entrepreneurial Syrup Adventure with a big, fat, red FAIL.  (Anyone want to buy a box of 2 dozen tiny food-grade plastic bottles?)

If you’re still reading, you understand one reason I’m psyched about the Monin line:  they pulled off what I could not. I was sure this would be a high-fructose extravaganza, but no, they’re all made with cane sugar, and only the fruit-flavored syrups include potassium sorbate, a relatively innocuous preservative. But maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself:  I insisted on using fresh peppers and spices, where Monin subs in “natural pepper flavor,” “natural cinnamon flavor,” etc. I’m not entirely sure what goes into that, or how “natural” it actually may be.

In terms of taste, I was pleased. There’s a good balance of sweet and heat, with just a pleasant peppery tingle and no harshness in the throat or unpleasantly overt ersatz aftertaste. Nothing is the same as making it yourself, but I consider these syrups a perfectly acceptable substitute, and they get a rare recommendation from me. Bravo to Monin for making the product that I could not.

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Because elephants hate chiles, and we like elephants.

It’s that time of year when we all start thinking about philanthropy (right???) and I love when I can help others by doing what comes naturally to me. Enter Elephant Pepper hot sauces.

Apparently, elephants hate chile peppers (who knew?), so farmers in Africa plant chiles around their fields to deter elephants from trampling the crops. The peppers then are made into hot sauces and spice mixes, which fund elephant conservation and agricultural research.  They even have great-looking gift packs, if you’re in holiday shopping mode.

Besides, if you buy some, then you have an excuse to make these great hot-sauce cocktails

Girl holding chiles - photo courtesy of elephantpepper.com

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